Mango, orange, neem, peepal and banyan. Nature in abundance? At Vidya Vanam, a school for tribal children located in Anaikatti near Coimbatore, classrooms from kindergarten to class 10 have been named after fruits, trees, rivers and mountains of India, for a purpose. As academic director TM Srikanth puts it, âWe did not want to grade classes as most of our students are first-generation learners and they should not have the feeling of being left behind.â
Vidya Vanam was started by Prema Rangachary in 2007 with the aim of catering to the educational needs of the local tribal population, with a majority of the students belonging to the Irula tribe, a hunting and honey gathering community.
From starting the school campus in a rented premise 11 years back with 40 children between the ages of 3.5 and 8, Vidya Vanam today (academic year 2018-19) has 280 students on its rolls, with classes from KG to class 10. Irula children account for 60% of the total student strength and education is fully free for them.
Students have indeed been the biggest beneficiaries of such intervention. For V Sandhya of the Himalaya Group (class X), learning English has made a whole lot of difference to her life. âI donât struggle to speak the language anymore and I can freely communicate with others. Also, after the morning assembly, students are given turns to come on stage and make presentations, engage in debates and sing as part of a choir. All of this helps get rid of stage fear,â she says.
Prema Rangachary and her son TM Srikanth, the academic director
In fact, Vidya Vanamâs vision itself is to ânurture children with native intelligenceâ to become leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Prema Rangacharyâs biggest observation of children at the school is that all of them have an âuncluttered mind.â That, to her, is a big plus. âThey tend to look at things differently and they have no preconceived notion of things. The fact that they are not judgmental about life and things around them, is very positive,â she says.
Recently, students Prakash and Tejaswi won a prize in a competition held in neighbouring Coimbatore on Gond paintings. Gond, a tribal art, has its origins in Madhya Pradesh.
The team at Vidya Vanam has been sensitive from the very beginning to not replicate the discipline model of urban schools in its entirety in a rural setting. Prema says there is an inbuilt fear when students enter the institution. âThere are certain things that we want them to adhere to when they are in an educational institution and they do adhere to it. Ours is an open school environment where the teachers are addressed as anna (big brother), akka (elder sister) and patti (grandmother). The absence of a restrictive environment fosters personality development and greater self-confidence amongst our students,â she says.
âWhile the method of instruction is English in the classrooms, students talk amongst themselves in Tamil and the native tribal dialect while in the campus, and that is not discouraged,â adds Prema.
Tribal communities like the Irula have not been free of oppression, and to inculcate the important life skill of decision making early on, Prema employed female high school graduates from the community as school teachers way back in 2007. Many of them not only stayed on with the institution, but also went on to complete their graduate and postgraduate studies. âWhile initially, elders in the community resisted the idea of womenfolk teaching the next generation. But today, lady teachers have gained respect and are able to take decisions on their own. This has been the first step towards transformation in the community,â she says.
Students arenât far behind. In terms of emotional balance, they possibly end up scoring higher than urban kids who attend elite institutions. A school teacher at Vidya Vanam says that no matter what the prevailing situation is back home (like no new clothes for Diwali), most students who come to Vidya Vanam are able to keep their emotions in check during school hours. The adjustment quotient is high in such kids as they know they canât get everything in life as their parents have limited means. âEarly on, the lifestyle displayed by the kid is one of balance,â the teacher says.
The day begins at 9 am with a âsilent assemblyâ where patriotic songs in different languages (Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, Gujarati and Bengali) are played. The school curriculum is an evolving one that focuses on theme-based learning. âThis is an interdisciplinary approach that helps children understand that knowledge is a seamless continuous flow from one discipline to another. A theme is selected and studied from every subject and artistic angle,â says Prema.
The result is that the school has five zones: Tamil, English, Maths, Science and Social Science. Classes 4 to 7 do not have fixed classrooms, and instead, students move among these different zones. âThe idea is to provide a fear-free and inclusive learning environment and a specially designed curriculum that integrates todayâs educational requirements with the community needs,â she says.
For instance, in subjects like environmental studies -- folk tales, dance and music unique to the community is interwoven into the curriculum. âOnce, the topic for project day was forests, and some students gave an exhaustive list of birds found in the region. That was new to many of us. They were proud of their knowledge and their roots.â
Prema adds that the feeling of empathy is inbuilt in the community. âThere is no concept of orphans in this tribe. Children without parents get adopted by the village and they are part of the larger living ecosystem.â
Vidya Vanam recently introduced a two-year diploma course in basic rural technology under the National Institute of Open Schooling. On completing class 8, students can join this course and also study for their class ten examinations side by side. This diploma includes the basics of electrical engineering, agriculture, animal husbandry and home science, which includes snack and biscuit making. This, in turn, opens up avenues for self-employment.
For the moment, the Irula tribe is content with basic necessities, with no concept of saving. But that is set to change, as students from Vidya Vanam will enter mainstream society soon.
(This article is part of the One-WorldâDream a Dream Media Fellowships on Life Skills-2018)